Sunday, June 12, 2005

They tried out your plan, it brought misery instead

It was about a week ago that Matt pointed out the list of most harmful books from Human Events Online. I let this pass without comment, because (cough) I haven't read any of them.

Then Patricia Storms asks the next question... can a book be harmful? (Click the link and make sure you see the illustration of her answer... I'll wait.)

I'm prepared to stipulate that some books are, in fact, harmful, and not just because of their potential energy. (Some ideas are harmful, books contain ideas, Q.E.D.) I'll even agree that 2 of Human Events' top 10 are quite obviously among these books. And I'll further assume that, somewhere out there, there's a group of liberal scholars working on the equally and oppositely biased list from the liberal perspective, so I'll not bother weighing in on the titles.

So if there are such things as harmful books out there... what do we do about it?

As a First Amendment absolutist, my knee-jerk reaction is that the state should stay the hell out of it. I take a very conservative reading of the words "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," and it's not an area where I brook much dissent. After conspiracy, incitement to riot, and fraud, I really don't want to hear anything out of the State about it.

(As a sidebar, there are court challenges going on right now addressing what constitutes "harmful" and who gets to decide. Get informed, make an opinion, get involved.)

Where does that leave things like libraries and museums and publicly funded theaters? I don't know. We've done a lot of thinking about government restriction of speech, but I need to read up on the pros and cons of government promotion of diverse ideas. That's another post.

Of course, things don't start and end with the state. The First Amendment guarantees our right to assemble freely, and we do need social and personal responses to ideas we consider dangerous. Generating lists of the bad books is one way to do this... in a Thomistic fashion, we need to interact with all the available ideas in order to test the strength of our own. I tend to think that this is a more productive choice than just turning our backs and refusing to grant a bad idea the legitimacy of our dissent.

But there's only so many hours in the day, and you can't fight the good fight against every last threat, and sometimes you just have to put on your best condescending face, say "that's not how we do things here", and turn away. As a librarian, I watched my profession really get a black eye in the early '90s, arguing that anyone should be able to get to any website from anywhere. It seemed like a core value at the time, but in retrospect, it smacks of a shockingly rank relativism. There's a major difference between "inappropriate in part" and "censored for all," and I think we can discuss the first without undermining the second.

I guess I've got more questions than answers today, but I did want to throw out another idea. This one might be more informed by the Second Amendment than the First. Some ideas are harmful to people who need to be harmed. Some books are dangerous to people who ought to be in danger. (Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.)

It might be interesting to think about total "harm" as if it could be objectively measured by loss of power or property or wealth or life. We'd still see some pretty vile stuff on the list, but I wonder if we wouldn't see some things worth fighting for too.


Blogger lemming said...

Interesting list - I think "Unsafe" was probably included as a personal slap at Nader. (I notice that Sinclair's "Jungle" didn't make this list, though am sure it would have 100 years earlier.)

I repeat myself - the 1950s were followed by the 1960s.

3:25 PM, June 12, 2005  
Blogger Joe said...

I'll give my brother a day to see if he wants to tell the story about my mom's opinion of the Corvair...

9:32 AM, June 13, 2005  
Blogger tommyspoon said...

Thanks a lot, Joe. I've spent way too much time thinking about this for the past several days. The only comment I can offer about the notion of "harmful" books or ideas is the following:

So @#$!%&* what.

Not an eloquent comment, I know. But it's the only one I got.

9:46 AM, June 15, 2005  
Blogger Joe said...

Since it got under your skin, I'm hoping your comment corresponds pretty well to a phrase my friend Matt likes...

Life's tough. Get a helmet.

(Usually said after or during the administration of a dope slap...)

Which pretty closely corresponds to my feelings about the issue as well.

I do think it's interesting that the reaction of the Left has largely been to assume that the authors think that "harmful" ideas shouldn't be disseminated. The San Francisco Chronicle, I think, even called it a "blacklist". I can appreciate where this assumption came from, but I don't actually see any evidence of it in the article...

11:38 AM, June 15, 2005  

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